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Taking Action

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4. You are teaching a Special Topics Class: Campus Sustainability this semester. What are your goals for this class? How do you make college students care about trash? What have you learned from teaching this course?
There are three related topics for the class. First, we are investigating the idea of sustainability in general—what it means, where it came from, and how it can be applied. Second, we are exploring the special meanings of sustainability for universities. As a place of research and education, a school like UW Oshkosh is uniquely placed to have a big impact on sustainability. We are educating students and sending them out into the world; they will take what they learn at the university with them, including ideas that relate to sustainability. At the same time, the university’s operations—heating our buildings, feeding our students, watering our lawns—have a big footprint. We need to try to make our operations as sustainable as possible. Third, we are looking at one element of campus sustainability in particular—the solid waste stream. The university has no comprehensive policy on solid waste management, and the Campus Sustainability Plan has identified the creation of such a plan as a campus priority. The students in ES 390 are taking the first step in this direction by conducting an audit of the waste stream—so we know what we are doing now, what trends we are seeing, what areas we need to improve on. So an essential goal of this class is to give the students a real world project to work on, so that their research contributes to the overall goal of helping the university become more sustainable.


Mountain of trash: UW Oshkosh students Jessica Graf (l) and Kaci Worth (r) and their classmates from Dr. Jim Feldman's Campus Sustainability course take a up close and personal look at the trash that ends up at the Winnebago Country Landfill, the highest point in the county.

It has not been hard to get students to care about trash. This is one of those issues that no one thinks about much, but then when you start looking into it more there are all sorts of fascinating implications—there are economic dimensions of the problem, moral considerations, environmental impacts, and so on. And it is an issue that affects everyone—everyone creates trash, everyone throws trash “away.” But no one knows where “away” is. So an additional goal of the class is to figure that out—what happens to our trash when get rid of it. Making something like the waste stream more transparent and easier to trace is key building block for sustainability.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount in teaching the class. I’m no expert on waste—I’m learning right along with the students. The scale of the problem is truly overwhelming. It is hard to appreciate what it all means until you go to the landfill—as our class did in March—and stand on top of the highest point in Winnebago County, a 100-ft tall mountain of trash, trash as far as you can see, in every direction. It is pretty powerful stuff.

5. How has UW Oshkosh fared in its sustainability goals?
UW Oshkosh is doing well in achieving its sustainability goals, although there is always more to do. We are a national leader for universities of our size and type. We have a committed administration, leaders in every sector of campus life, and we’ve made a lot of progress. We recently came in 25th in a nationwide waste-minimization competition called Recyclemania that included 267 schools—over 50% of our waste was reused or recycled, instead of sent to a landfill. We have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars (and gallons of water and tons of carbon dioxide) with water and energy conservation measures around campus. 24 faculty from 19 different departments and all four colleges have participated in a training designed to infuse the idea of sustainability into the curriculum. On the other hand, there is still a whole lot of room for improvement. Many people on campus don’t know about our university’s commitment to sustainability, and our leadership in this area. There are still lots of practices on campus that could be improved—from little things to big ones.

6. It's all fine and good to have such lofty goals as "making the world a better place," etc., but what can I, one person, do now?
There is always room for one person to make a difference. Last year, the students in my Campus Sustainability Class learned this lesson first-hand, when they led the movement to keep Kentucky Fried Chicken off campus. I know that many of them were really charged by this—by the recognition of what one person—or a small number of committed people—can do. And ultimately, all that any of us can do is to try to live our own lives in a way that is as responsible, as ethical, as sustainable as we are able. And this will differ from person to person—everyone is going to have a different level of commitment. At the same time, the problems that we face—global climate change, biodiversity loss, urban sprawl—are sweeping, large-scale challenges that require responses from every level of society—from individuals as well as from communities, businesses, and governments. This isn’t an either/or situation, where action should start at the individual level or the governmental level. It has to come from everywhere.

On Earth Day 2010, the students in Dr. Feldman's Campus Sustainability class conducted a waste sort, in which they sort through the campus trash to see what could have been recycled, composted or reused. Dave Tellock, general manager of Veolia Environmental Services, donated one of the company's trucks to collect and dump almost 20 cubic yards of trash from the UW Oshkosh dormitories. This amounts to about 14 percent of the trash that is collected on a typical Thursday at the University. In an interview with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, the students share what they've learned from digging in other people's trash.

This podcast is also available for download to your iPod through UW Oshkosh  iTunesU (requires iTunes)

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(The photo composite and the photo of Dr. Jim Feldman are by Shawn McAfee of the UW Media Services; photos that appear in the video are courtesy of Dr. Jim Feldman.)


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For more information, visit UW Oshkosh Sustainability official website.